Explicate yourself

This is a bit esoteric (a word which will probably  invite you to click ‘exit’ and start looking for something more entertaining). But it’s a blog I wrote years ago for the excellent Authors Electric site  and it conveys some thoughts about the writing game that I think are worth repeating.

A page of a Flaubert manuscript (which his editor had to decipher).

Explicate yourself, I dare you.

I used to lecture and give tutorials on French literature, so I know how to do what they call ‘explication de texte’. ‘Explication’ in French and English goes further and deeper than ‘explanation’ and it’s fun. You see things in a novel, poem, play, story that weren’t obvious at first – links, connections, rhythms, meanings. But …

… it’s not so easy to do it when you’re talking about your own writing. Because if you start claiming things about your intentions, explaining what your symbols, images, etc. ‘mean’, or talk about any of the normal stuff that crops up when people discuss books, you can’t help but sound pretentious.

I take my writing seriously. I want it to entertain, amuse if possible but also to say something – usually about how human beings treat one another. I marvel at the resilience of some, admire the ‘cheerfulness against the odds’ of others – not just by describing them and their actions and circumstances, but by using other subtextual tricks and juxtapositions to try a bit of subliminal persuasion on the reader.

But there, you see? Already, that’s making me sound like a candidate for Pseuds’ Corner.

So what do you do? Let the writing speak for itself? Yes, of course, but that works best when the reader’s tucked away somewhere with just the book and his/her own imagination. Your ‘critic’s voice’ would only be an intrusion. And anyway, if you’re just plucking short extracts from a 350 page novel to study, you need to give each some context. So you find a lot of your explication time is taken up with something like ‘Well, in the sixty pages leading up to this paragraph, Laura realises she’s pregnant by the customs officer so her sentence is commuted to thirty years, her seventeen children are put into care in Leamington Spa and the cosmetic surgery is postponed until the surgeon is released from quarantine. Meanwhile, the genetically modified chimpanzees have been recaptured but the green one is found to have a wasting disease and so the vet, Laura’s husband, has to retrace its steps in order to find the source. We rejoin Laura in her cell just after the one-eyed warder has kissed her and gone home to his vegan wife.’

OK, that’s stupid, but it’s much more interesting for an audience than pointing out how I’ve expanded the imagery, fused abstract and concrete, reinforced a particular theme, inverted ethical conventions or something equally off-putting. Apart from anything else, whoever heard a reader saying ‘Oh goody, he’s inverted the ethical conventions. I can’t wait to see what he does with the Hegelian dialectic’?

I’m not questioning the reader’s sensitivity to things other than ‘the story’ or doubting his/her ability to operate at several levels of comprehension and appreciation; I’m just saying that I find it difficult to do that when it’s my own books under discussion. My characters continually surprise me, their actions create parallels and contrasts that I haven’t always anticipated, so once I set them going they work some alchemy of their own. Maybe they’re in tune with all the sub-textual stuff and how they reveal it occurs at some level below or beside consciousness. When it works, it’s a wonderful feeling but, strangely, I don’t always feel I should take credit for it.

All of which probably reveals something sinister about my psyche, some deep, quivering inadequacy. It also reveals another potential explanation: I know life is serious but I often find it hard to take things too seriously.

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